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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ACDA Revisited Part I

Last week's biennial national conference of the American Choral Directors Association ended with a bang. A fine performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem concluded a week of generally fine performances and interesting workshops. Here is a review of what I heard and saw. I will break it down by category to make it a little easier to digest.

The Event and Venues

Dallas' shiny new arts district is in the main a great place to hold performance related convention. The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is the gem of our city and it did not disappoint. Sadly, the Winspear Opera House proved again to be less than stellar. The hall is designed to showcase the solo voice, and thus it is pretty much useless for anything else. Ensembles sound dead in the space and there is no bloom to the sound. Several conductors complained that the whole acoustic changed the moment an audience came in and that everything they had done in rehearsal to make a good blended sound flew out the window. The brand new City Performance hall was strangely underused. This would have been a far better venue for choirs than the opera house. The Cathedral Guadalupe was reserved mostly for sessions dealing with church music. Aesthetically astute perhaps but the choirs who had to suffer through the Winspear's deadness would have benefited from singing in the Cathedral.

Exhibits were set up in the lobbies of the Meyerson and the Winspear, which worked well for the most part. The only instance of bad planning was on Saturday when the exhibitors blocked off the front entrance to the Meyerson to tear down, thus forcing hundreds of people to us a narrow side entrance making for several log jams of people. This should have been better planned.

Performances

 I had the opportunity to hear about seventeen choirs over the four day span. I observed a number of trends. First, I am thrilled that we are moving away from the preponderance of music that is nothing but a string of cluster chords. As one of my colleagues deftly opined, you can stack overtones to the moon but if they're boring, who cares.

There was no shortage of dull, however. Any convention in which performers are performing for other performers is bound to generate an over abundance of esoterica. But even the most seasoned academics need to enjoy a show every now and then. I was disappointed to find myself falling asleep in concerts because of the endless stream of dull commissioned pieces whose final product did not merit the amount of rehearsal time they took to perfect. On the positive side, the use of instruments and movement in several concerts was not only refreshing, but often inspiring and thrilling.

Following are brief reviews of the choirs that I heard.

The Arlington High School Colt Chorale Varsity Men

This fetching choir, conducted by Dinah Menger and Mason Barlow stood well above the crowd. With brilliant programming, professional level showmanship and stellar sound, this choir's infectious enthusiasm was awe inspiring. It was obvious from the get-go that these young men were in love with performing. Truly fine singing and tasteful choreography made this one of the outstanding performances of the week.

The Arlington Martin High School Chamber Singers

Arlington, Texas seems to have a choir vitamin in its water supply. The Martin High School ensemble presented a solid program that got better as it went along. Sadly, I heard them in the Winspear which was a hindrance to any choir that had to sing there. I was particularly impressed with this choirs elegant performance of Kevin Memley's She Walks in Beauty.  The inspiring It Takes a Village by Joan Szymko received a rousing performance with some fine solos and great enthusiasm.

Camerata Musica Limburg

Although some professional commitments kept me from hearing this outstanding professional mens ensemble in concert, I did get to attend their master class at the crack of dawn on Wednesday morning. If the beautiful sounds that they were able to produce at nine a.m., I am confident that an evening performance would have blown me out of the water.

The Florida State University Singers

Kevin Fenton led this largish mixed choir in a well executed but rather dull performance. This was an example of too much dull repertoire sadly, some rather perfunctory singing. Particularly disappointing was the they way that Dr. Fenton blew through the gorgeous harmonies in Mendelssohn's stunning Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen. To these ears, Fenton took Adolfus Hailstork's (whose name was misspelled in the Choral Journal program guide) Crucifixion entirely too fast, thus negating the pain that the composer masterfully built into the score. FSU's red costumes were unique but a bit of a distraction.

Fullerton College Chamber Singers

I hate to say it, but this concert was the most disappointing of all that I heard. John Tebay led his primarily undergraduate choir in an out of tune shout fest that was made all the worse by his clueless interpretations of the repertoire. Hans Leo Hassler's  Exultate Deo  was transformed from an elegant dance in to machine gun fire. There was no sense of rubato or finesse in Brahms' masterful Ich aber bin Elend. Sloppy intonation and a lack of blend destroyed the delicious harmonies. Eriks Esenwalds' stunning Long Road received a phoned in performance. (Compare it to the breath taking rendition from the Mount San Antonio College Chamber Singers and hour or so before). Shawn Kirchner's rousing O What a Beautiful City was hollered at us, not sung.

Highland Park Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir

One of Dallas' outstanding church music programs lives at HPPC under George Gregory Hobbs watchful hands. Dr. Hobbs led this large choir in solid performances of a number of excellent church anthems. I particularly appreciated the choice of repertoire as it showcased what the choir exists to do, that is, lead worship. No academic esoterica here. Solid singing and prayerful restraint were the hallmarks of this performance. Sadly, the monstrous and marvelous organ of the Meyerson Symphony Center showed that it wasn't designed to accompany. A lack of richness in the string sounds and overpowering principles were a bit of a distraction even though HPPC's fine organist kept the big Fisk under control.

Houston Chamber Choir

Robert Simpson led his professional chamber choir from Houston in an exciting performance, one that I sadly had to hear in the acoustically bereft Opera House. Of particular merit were the movements from Dominck DiOrio's A Dome of Many Couloured Glass. Not only is this a very exciting work, I don't think that these ears have ever heard a marimba played so amazingly. Srephen Tobin's virtuosity was quite breathtaking. Bob Chilcott's entertaining Weather Report was the other high point of this first rate performance.

Indianapolis Youth Chorale

Cheryl Eisele West led her gi-normous youth choir in what was one of the more inspired concerts of the week. Well chosen repertoire, fine intonation and elegantly shaped phrases made for a very enjoyable thirty minutes. Kevin Memley's She Walks in Beauty received its second fine performance of the week and Dan Forrest's Dance of Exultation  was quite the rabble rouser. This large choir was able to pull off some exquisite pianissimos, but these ears thought that the fortes were over sung, a trend that seemed to permeate much of the convention. Louder ain't always better. But as an Indiana native myself, I was very proud of the home team, especially for exposing so many fine young singers to much great literature.

Iowa State Cantaums

This outstanding sounding choir definitely gets the nappy time award for most uninteresting music. Dedicated to new works, this ensemble holds its many commissions as a source of pride. And well it should. Now it should just commission some interesting pieces. We were treated to thirty minutes of beautifully executed difficulty that quickly wore on the ear. Enough already of the endless bands of cluster chords. Yawnsville.

Kennesaw State University Men's Ensemble

This fine choir brought about some confusion in the ranks. During their introduction, the host commented that this group had only four music majors amongst its members. The printed program however revealed that well over twenty singers were pursuing music degrees. This little revelation took a bit of the wow factor away. Personnel issues or no, this was an exciting performance and the highlight of its concert session. Using various percussion instruments, creative staging and well, fine singing, this choir presented a vigorous program that was well selected, finely balanced and excellently sung. The highlight was Ola Gjielo's lovely Ubi Caritas, in which the composer made a guest appearance playing an improvised piano accompaniment over his own score. It was pretty thrilling.

THE MOUNT SAN ANTONIO COLLEGE CHAMBER SINGERS

Let us stop here to declare that this was the finest choir to perform in the entire convention, bar none.

Bruce Rogers is a programming genius, and his flawless blend of music, motion and performance perfection are almost beyond words. This was a performance that was so beautifully executed, so passionately rendered and so gorgeous in its visual presentation that for this listener, time literally stopped for the duration of the concert.

From the first note of Victoria's exquisitely simple Regina coeli, we knew we were in for a treat. Ola Gjeilo's stunning O magnum mysterium was deeply enhanced by the lovely staging, complete with a Madonna in a simple white shawl.

And the gifts just kept on coming and from all over the world. Every piece on the program pleased more than its predecessor, and Eriks Esenvalds' Long Road, transported listeners to flights of ecstasy. Perhaps I gush, but I have not been treated to a choral experience like that one in many a year and I will be first in line to attend Dr. Rogers' next master class or workshop.

It was most obvious that this was utterly inspired singing. You could read it on the singers' faces. Dr. Rogers must be a most inspirational conductor to get such astoundingly beautifully and emotionally charged musicianship from his young ensemble. By far, this concert was the apex of the week.

PACIFIC LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY CHOIR OF THE WEST

The Choir of the West's superb singing and programming rate it the other choir of the week to get a red banner. Richard Nance led a well balanced program that was marked by first rate musicianship, outstanding balance and tone and music selections that flowed together beautifully. The highlight of this nearly flawless concert was again a work by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. Northern Light is a hauntingly atmospheric work that combines a splendid text, eerie mystery and the marvelous added effect of tuned glasses. This performance brought chills down the spine. Mr. Esenvalds is certain to continue to rise in fame, but more on that later. It was refreshing to hear music of Francis Poulenc so beautifully rendered. ACDA conventions can tend to ignore the music of past masters, and Poulenc is a sadly neglected master. The rousing So I'll Sing With My Voice of Dominic Argento brought this Mary Poppins (practically perfect in every way) performance to a thrilling close. Along with Mt. San Antonio's Chamber Singers, this performance can be awarded Best in Show.

San Antonio Chamber Choir

Professional ensembles were very well represented this year and the San Antonio Chamber Choir comes to the top of the list both for vocal virtuosity and interesting programming. Timothy Kramer's Lux Caelestis, from which the choir performed two movements, stole the show. The performance provoked loud bravos from Dr. Jerry McCoy, who is arguably the biggest champion of contemporary choral music working today. If he gives you a bravo for a new piece you know it was good. Of additional merit was the lovely setting of the Medieval poem Mille Regretz by Andrew Rindfleisch. Amongst a sea of rather modern music, Scott MacPherson delivered a rather ravishing performance of Johannes Brahms' Dem dunkeln Schloss, der heil'gen Erde. It was a welcome intermission between all the modernity.

The Tallis Scholars

Known for their superb recordings and performances of sacred music from the Renaissance, it was a pleasure to hear the ten finely honed voices of The Tallis Scholars perform some new music. A new and as unyet named work by Eric Whitacre was rather typical of this composer's chord stacking. Arvo Paert's Nunc dimittis was hauntingly beautiful. Better even still was Palestrina's setting of the same text, through which this exemplary choir showed us just how this music is supposed to sound. It seemed to this listener however that the group might have been a little tour weary as little enthusiasm or body language came across in their performance.

There is more to come tomorrow as I will review more choirs, the closing performance of Britten's War Requiem, my choices for composers of the year and some general thoughts about the state of our art, but time and space dictate that I get this off to you, dear readers, and bring more tomorrow. Your comments are welcome. Feel free to send along your thoughts.




5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I am a member of the Mt. SAC Chamber Singers and I am so happy read that you enjoyed our performance so much! It was our honor to perform and it was our greatest hope to inspire our audience, and it seems we achieved that. Thank you so much :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Fullerton College is the only choral establishment that you criticized (read: assassinated). Sounds like it's more personal to me.

Anonymous said...

Well, I see you tore into Westminster as well. I was at Dallas, too, as a spectator and I distinctly remember Fullerton College ending with "Witness" by Stacey Gibbs, not "O What a Beautiful City." Perhaps this post was made in haste and not with a totally objective mind. I'd hate for the singers who put in so much work to read your hateful remarks and feel discouraged by your scathing review of their art, both Westminster and Fullerton alike.

Joseph McBrayer said...

Hello there!

I'm a member of Kennesaw State's Men's ensemble and I thought I'd clear up the confusion; there were only four VOICE majors that sang with the choir. There is a larger number of music majors of several sorts, but it is still a non-audition choir with a large number of men with no music background.

I'm not sure what our director said that night as it was all a bit of a rush but sometimes her words are a bit off. She's the most brilliant director I've ever worked with but the words not always good are.

I hope that didn't impact your view of our choir too much, but we all had a great time and thank you for listening to us and giving us the shoutout!

Kevin Sutton said...

What's good is good and what's bad is bad. If you make it to a national ACDA convention, it should pretty much be all good. It would have been nice if the commentator had signed his or her name instead of posting anonymously.